Mimesis Law
24 September 2020

Dylann Roof Now Has A Fool For A Lawyer

November 29, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Abraham Lincoln wisely said, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Obviously the reverse is also true. No matter how smart a defendant thinks he is, when he is his own lawyer, his lawyer is an idiot. Sorry to those of you who think it doesn’t look all that hard. But the courtroom is no place for the novice to cut his teeth.

And a federal death penalty trial is no place for even an experienced trial lawyer to venture. But as of yesterday, Dylann Roof is going to do just that. With no legal training or skills, he intends to represent himself in a federal trial. Roof’s life is literally at stake. In fact, his life is the only thing at stake in this trial.

Roof, in case you forgot or live under a rock, is the guy who shot and killed nine people worshipping at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Shooting nine people is the work of a jackass, but Roof is more of a jackass than usual.

Roof confessed to killing nine African-Americans with hopes of starting a race war. His attempt, while tragic, utterly failed to make a statement of racial hate. Now, thanks to this trial, he gets a second shot at releasing his message.

As the two sides of the case prepared to pick a jury, Roof’s lawyers began to question whether he actually understood what was going on. United States District Judge Richard Gergel quickly halted jury selection and held a sealed hearing to determine whether Roof was competent to stand trial.

Turns out he is competent, but that is not a particularly high standard. While he is competent to stand trial, he is certainly not competent to represent himself.

Gergel told Roof in court that he felt the decision to be “strategically unwise,” but he ultimately granted Roof permission to represent himself at trial. Roof’s previous attorneys will now serve as stand-by counsel, the judge told the defendant in court.

Noted death penalty attorney David Bruck slid over after the decision and let Roof take the lead chair. The lawyers can stand by and help Roof if he asks.

One of the most legendary death penalty defenders in the country just had to hand over the lead counsel chair in a federal death penalty trial to a fool. “Strategically unwise” is a bit of an understatement. Unless, of course, winning this trial is not the strategy. In that case, maybe Roof knows exactly what he is doing.

Roof has confessed to the shooting, and the evidence against him is pretty strong. In fact, he has already offered to plead guilty, but the federal government wants its day in court. Instead of letting Roof fade into the oblivion he deserves, the federal government’s insistence on a dramatic courtroom trip to the death chamber has set Roof up to do what he could not do through killing.

Because trial is the only option, and the death penalty is the only thing at stake, Roof doesn’t have a whole lot to lose.

In a similarity with the Boston Marathon bombing trial, the key question now will be whether Roof will receive the death penalty in the event that he’s convicted, [CBS News justice correspondent Paula] Reid reports.

When there is nothing to lose, why not swing for the fences? This is America, and you have the right to make stupid decisions if you want. But Roof’s decision may turn out to be far more malicious than stupid.

Roof now has a podium from which to preach. And the federal government handed it right to him.

Killing is killing, as much as we want to believe there are more and less special kinds of killing. Taking a life is bad. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s patriotic. But it always represents a failure. The victim’s failure or the killer’s failure or the failure of someone who isn’t even directly involved in the killing. But it’s always bad.

Is the killing worse when it’s meant to send a message? Not really. The result is the same. The bad part, the loss of life, is still there. It is the giving of credibility to the message that is bad. The easiest way to silence the messenger is to take away their voice. Roof’s cries for a race war fall silent if there is no one there to hear them.

Instead, he has a grand stage on which to perform. And he was handed his pass to that stage by the overwhelming need to prosecute the evil right out of the world.

Roof did a terrible thing. He was caught and confessed. Then he volunteered to go to a prison cell until his death, which would have been a quiet way to forget about a useless person who performed a useless crime in pursuit of a useless goal.

Make no mistake, Roof is certainly allowed to represent himself. As the Faretta opinion pointed out, the right to represent yourself in court is one of the oldest rights American citizens possess.

In the federal courts, the right of self-representation has been protected by statute since the beginnings of our Nation. 

Roof can represent himself. And while he does not have the unlimited ability to make a spectacle out of his trial, he can certainly try. Like the proverbial wolf ride, good luck jumping off. Or staying on. This is probably going to suck either way.

Maybe Dylann Roof surprises everybody and just stays quiet while the government marches him to his death. But he shouldn’t have the opportunity to be heard. He has said enough. Let’s stop listening. When we insist on special proceedings for special crimes, we make the defendant special. And Roof doesn’t deserve that. Neither do his victims.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • ken
    29 November 2016 at 9:51 am - Reply

    “No matter how smart a defendant thinks he is, when he is his own lawyer, his lawyer is an idiot.”
    True statement, in large part because judges too often make sure to ensure the statement is true.

    29 November 2016 at 8:59 pm - Reply


    I have empathy for the trial judge, stand-by counsel, and even the prosecutor. The worst case scenario is that the defendant becomes violent, ranting and raving, and is then consigned to a cell with a tv feed of the proceedings. I sincerely extend my best wishes to those who are sworn to see that this fellow gets a fair trial despite his desire to turn the courtroom into a theater (of the absurd).

    Thanks for writing about this case. It is an example of what really happens every once in a while in the federal courts. The only difference here is the death penalty.

    All the best.


  • Copyright Trolls Steel & Hansmeier Indicted And Arrested
    20 December 2016 at 9:16 am - Reply

    […] a fair guess that the defendants will take the charges to trial and perhaps represent themselves. Dylan Roof watch out. So, the prosecutors probably picked the low hanging fruit and a sufficient number, […]